Sunday, January 29, 2012

Preach One: Epiphany 1B

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

"Oh, ketchup!"

I don't know why that's what we would shout, my dad and me.  Sometimes we called out other condiments, "Oh, mayonnaise! Oh, mustard!", as we crested another wave with splashes and giggles.

Dad must have started carrying me out beyond the breakers when I was very small, and he didn't stop until long after I was old enough to remember riding out to sea on his side, my arms encircling his neck, his arms holding me up and out of the way of the rise and fall of saltwater and foam.

I remember the thrill of feeling waves crash around my feet as we moved farther from shore.  I remember the lightness of floating together over the rolling rounded tops of waves in what seemed like the middle of the ocean to me.  I remember the relief of shouting out silly words every time we made it over, somehow aware that even though my dad was a grown-up and his feet could touch the bottom, and even though the waves weren't really as big as mountains, the water was powerful and could be unpredictable.

I remember the feeling of fear as every once in a while a wave was going to break just before it reached us, and we would have to go under instead of over, and we would hold our breath and duck our heads, and for a moment that seemed forever there was no sight or sound but only water and my dad.  And I remember the security of knowing I was always safe, because dad was always there and he would never let go.

Is there anything in the world more essential to our lives than water?  Our bodies are made up of mostly water, every cell a tiny sea in which our essence floats.  Thirst threatens our lives long before starvation does.  Rain nourishes the soil that supports the plants at the bottom of the food chain in which we are at the top, dependent on everything below us for life.

Is there anything in the world more destructive to our lives than water?  Surely we are especially sensitive to that here in Mississippi, where just south of us on the coast waves have more than once rushed ashore unchecked, pulling people from their homes and even homes from their foundations out to sea.  Just north of us in the Delta too much rain has often flooded fields full of crops, uprooting or rotting or ruining a season's investment of seed and labor.  But it doesn't have to take a flood for water to be destructive - it is said that even the strongest swimmer can drown in even the shallowest water.

It is no wonder, then, that some of scripture's most dramatic and familiar stories take place around or in water.  In the beginning...  The very first sentence of the very first story on the very first page is about the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Noah and his menagerie would spend months at sea as forty days and nights of rain made the waters rise and cover all the earth. Moses and his people would walk safely through the waves of the Red Sea - oh ketchup! - before those waters came crashing down on Pharaoh's army.

Jesus would go down with John into the Jordan River to be baptized, the story at the heart of the first Sunday after the Epiphany.  He would ride - and sometimes walk - through fierce storms on the Sea of Galilee, stilling the water with a word, saving his friend Peter from sinking in foolishness and waves - oh mustard!

Water, for us, means refreshment and relief and nourishment and life, and it means risk and danger and drama and death.  Too much water, or not enough, can hurt us.  Our way of baptizing errs on the side of not enough as we sprinkle just a hint of water over a person's head and wipe it immediately away before it causes any discomfort or drowning, or, heaven forbid, threatens to damage any clothing.  It is not at all like the baptismal story we hear in Mark's gospel - Jesus is still waist deep and dripping all over in the waters of his baptism when the heavens tear open and a voice tells him, you are my beloved.

Listen, though, to what we say as we pray over the water we will use so sparingly in our baptismal liturgy: We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Though it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  The image of the waters of baptism are not just about waters of life, but waters of death.  In baptism we claim that we die with Christ so that we might live with him.  Baptism is about going all the way under before it is every about coming up out of the water.

Please understand that I love our liturgy, and that baptism is my sacrament to participate in as a priest.  But while it is possible to drown in two inches of water, I don't think anyone every went under, let alone drowned, in one of our baptismal fonts.

I wonder if that is why it is so hard for us - for anyone, even if they are baptized by immersion - to truly die to sin, to die to self, to die to the fears and anxieties that wash over us in waves.  We never go deep enough with Christ.  We are so afraid of losing control, of losing our lives, that we never go to the place where there is no sight or sound or security except for Jesus, his arms wrapped around us, never letting us go.

And so we sprinkle a few drops of water, a sweet little sacrament in which we oooh and aaah over the lace on the gown more than we do over the significance of the death and resurrection that have just taken place at the font.  All of our sacraments seem somehow miniature - a drop of water, a wafer of bread, a sip of wine... My liturgics professor in seminary said the occasion of God's grace at work in us is so significant that the symbols we use in worship should be as well.  Use enough water to drown in, he said.  Serve as much bread and wind to feed a multitude, with leftovers.  This is the nature of God's grace.

Baptism, for Jesus, was the moment at which he knew precisely who and whose he was.  You are my beloved.  It was the moment after which all moments were lived in and for God, in and for the good news that God loves, that God saves, that only God can quench our thirst for meaning, that only God can pull us from the waves of sin and doubt and fear that threaten our becoming who we were created to be.

What impact has baptism had on our lives?  Most of us in the Episcopal Church don't remember the moment of our baptism.  But we renew the promises made on our behalf over and again on feast days like today.  We remember the promises Christ made to us, that if we will die to ourselves and be buried with him we will also rise with him.  Far from being a sweet and safe sacrament, baptism is full of risk and danger and drama, as is a life truly lived not for ourselves but for the gospel.  What impact has baptism had on our lives?

We cannot help but wade out into a world in which wave after wave of obligation, need, fear, envy, temptation, sin, and grief threaten to sweep us off our feet and carry us out to sea.  By our baptism, though, we come to know precisely who and whose we are, beloved children of God, sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ's own for ever.  By our baptism we come to know that if we are willing to trust him, Christ will carry us and never let go, even when for a moment the waves overpower us.  By our baptism we come to know that we can cling to him and boldly confess, "Oh, Jesus!  Oh, Christ!  Oh, Savior!  Oh, Lord!"  Amen.

Artwork: Various photographs; "Baptism," by Eliz Kim; "Stormy Blue Waves," by Trine Meyer Vogsland.